At the same time, I’m torn about using this specific tool. Section 3 is extraordinarily strong medicine. Like an impeachment followed by conviction, it denies the voters their free choice of those who seek to represent them. That’s not the way democracy is designed to work.
And yet it is true, as certain conservatives never tire of reminding us, that democracy in the United States is not absolute. There are multiple checks built into our system that interfere with the expression of direct majority rule: the Senate, the Supreme Court and the Electoral College, for example. The 14th Amendment’s disqualification clause is another example — in this case, a peaceful and transparent mechanism to neutralize an existential threat to the Republic.
Nor is it antidemocratic to impose conditions of eligibility for public office. For instance, Article II of the Constitution puts the presidency off limits to anyone younger than 35. If we have decided that a 34-year-old is, by definition, not mature or reliable enough to hold such immense power, then surely we can decide the same about a 76-year-old who incited an insurrection in an attempt to keep that power.
So could Section 3 really be used to prevent Mr. Trump from running for or becoming president again? As a legal matter, it seems beyond doubt. The Capitol attack was an insurrection by any meaningful definition — a concerted, violent attempt to block Congress from performing its constitutionally mandated job of counting electoral votes. He engaged in that insurrection, even if he did not physically join the crowd as he promised he would. As top Democrats and Republicans in Congress said during and after his impeachment trial, the former president was practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of Jan. 6. The overwhelming evidence gathered and presented by the House’s Jan. 6 committee has only made clearer the extent of the plot by Mr. Trump and his associates to overturn the election — and how his actions and his failures to act led directly to the assault and allowed it to continue as long as it did. In the words of Representative Liz Cheney, the committee’s vice chair, Mr. Trump “summoned the mob, assembled the mob and lit the flame of this attack.”
A few legal scholars have argued that Section 3 does not apply to the presidency because it does not explicitly list that position. It is hard to square that claim with the provision’s fundamental purpose, which is to prevent insurrectionists from participating in American government. It would be bizarre in the extreme if Mr. Griffin’s behavior can disqualify him from serving as a county commissioner but not from serving as president.
It’s not the legal questions that give me pause, though; it’s the political ones.
First is the matter of how Republicans would react to Mr. Trump’s disqualification. An alarmingly large faction of the party is unwilling to accept the legitimacy of an election that its candidate didn’t win. Imagine the reaction if their standard-bearer were kept off the ballot altogether. They would thunder about a “rigged election” — and unlike all the times Mr. Trump has baselessly invoked that phrase, it would carry a measure of truth. Combine this with the increasingly violent rhetoric coming from right-wing media figures and politicians, including top Republicans, and you have the recipe for something far worse than Jan. 6. On the other hand, if partisan outrage were a barrier to invoking the law, many laws would be dead letters.
The more serious problem with Section 3 is that it is easy to see how it could morph into a caricature of what it is trying to prevent. Keeping specific candidates off the ballot is a classic move of autocrats, from Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela to Aleksandr Lukashenko in Belarus to Vladimir Putin. It sends the message that voters cannot be trusted to choose their leaders wisely — if at all. And didn’t we just witness Americans around the country using their voting power to repudiate Mr. Trump’s Big Lie and reject the most dangerous election deniers? Shouldn’t we let elections take their course and give the people the chance to (again) reject Mr. Trump at the ballot box?